Reykjavik: Downtown

Hamburg is two hours ahead of Reykjavik, so I wake up very early and then legitimately laze around. Eventually the smell of bacon starts wafting in from downstairs and I go to breakfast. The City Park Hotel is a busy one. Everyone is tucking in to their food, clearly with a plan for the day, either preparing to leave or close to catching a bus for their next tour.

There’s multiple bus stops nearby, but I’m itching for a long walk, so I set off. At first glance the hotel seems further away from the city center, but in reality it’s extremely easy to go downtown from here. Either walk down to the water and mountains you see on your right and then along the shore on Saebraut, it’s easy to pick a turning point to the left, basically any of them takes you to central Reykjavik. The other way, which I opt for, is to go the short distance down Hallarmúli, then turn left on Suðurlandsbraut, which eventually seamlessly gives way to Laugavegur, one of Reykjavik’s main streets. It’s easy to branch out from there.

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I’m not very different from many others as I make my way to the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s visible from my hotel as well and I take the elevator up to the observation deck. It’s just under the roof, a circular space with barred windows slightly above my head. Underneath each window there’s a sturdy wooden box with discreet foot markings. I grasp two window bars and pull myself up a bit to stand on the box. Then I carefully angle my phone between the bars and snap the views I want to capture from up here. Needless to say, they are breathtaking.

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Getting lost in the surrounding streets afterwards is easy, then it starts to rain and I get hungry. Le Bistro catches my eye – clearly French inspiration in terms of food, but with an Icelandic twist, and inside it’s cluttered and decorated with all sorts of things that make you think of a Parisian cafe with history, albeit slightly exaggerated. Every inch of space is taken up by pictures, plaques, bowls, baskets, postcards, bottles, and there are even postcards in the bathroom – my kind of place! It’s amusing to find this slice of France on my first day in Reykjavik, but my cheese platter is local and so is the melt-in-your-mouth salmon.

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Getting to Reykjavik

“What about dimensions?” – “Dimensions are INSANE.”

I’m standing in line to check in my suitcase (this hasn’t happened in ages, I’m a determined hand luggage girl every chance I get) for my first ever trip to Iceland and experiencing my very own little slice of The Big Bang Theory, only these dudes are showing off more. “I work in intel, so I can’t talk about what I specialize in,” one of the guys says in response to a question, then repeats “I work in intel” three more times during the conversation. But otherwise, they are right, dimensions can be TOTALLY insane and somehow the statement cloaks the images of Iceland swirling around my brain after all the reading I’ve done.

Time passes quickly and before I know it, the plane starts to descend in Keflavik Airport. Brown and green mountainous terrain embroidered by silver-white river threads is visible below, followed by what looks like splashes of mirrors reflecting the clouds I see from the plane.

Shortly before landing our captain says it’s very windy on the ground and to please be careful when we go down the stairs to the airport buses. As soon as I take the first step outside the cabin, I realize that this wind means business. Airport staff around us is wearing gloves, hats, and sweaters. I’m thankful for my layers and promptly feel just ever so slightly smug about being prepared.

Making my way through the airport on the way to baggage claim I basically start learning the language from reading signs, as you do, and two important words enter my vocabulary: komur (arrivals) and  snyrting (toilet). There’s enough going on, but everything seems to be ticking like clockwork, and thankfully I arrive early at the Airport Direct desk (reassuringly orange and impossible to miss) in the arrivals terminal. There are still seats on an earlier bus and within minutes I board one, then off I go.

The transfer industry is extremely well developed in Reykjavik, and while renting a car is definitely an option, for those who don’t drive or just want to sit back for a while after their flight, there’s a wide range of transfer types to choose from, all of them listed on the Keflavik Airport website.

The wind is so strong that I can see the long grass on the ground being flattened by it. I also hear it whipping against the bus. But the road is as smooth as can be and I find myself thinking that if I did drive, I’d love to drive here. And having Russian roots, the feel of the motorway from a passenger perspective is definitely something I’m attuned to. It’s also one of the first indicators that this country is doing well. The landscape outside changes, going from mixed mounds of rock, earth, grass and moss, to mountains in the distance and then blue water, neat houses and apartment buildings along the shoreline.

Our somewhat taciturn, weather-beaten driver suddenly becomes more talkative right towards the end of my journey, by which point there are only two passengers left on the bus. I say thank you and wish him a nice day when I disembark at my hotel, to which I get a “Thank you, lady!” He sounded like Fezzik in The Princess Bride.

After getting something to eat (it turns out the hotel serves a comforting dinner buffet, clearly geared towards strengthening its guests against a windy climate), I pop outside and make my way to the clearly visible Hilton Hotel nearby. Because it’s just what I do. Everyone I see walking outside is dressed in practical outdoor clothes and not one single woman is wearing heels. The Hilton is immediately warm and almost festive inside, and that’s all very nice, but I have a purpose. Here you can buy the Reykjavik City Card, and I get mine so I can g0 to all those museums with a discount and not have to think about tickets on the bus.

 

The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

Learning French and Going to France

When you’re learning French and traveling to France, you naturally feel like you should try speaking French once you arrive on French soil, right? Wait, try? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” You are not simply a tourist or a visitor anymore. You basically have an obligation.

Oui, Yoda certainly knew what he was talking about. I know the process of this particular trip to Paris and it automatically divides itself in to tasks in my head in reference to opportunities to parler français. With decisively German precision I follow my plan of producing short, but appropriate sentences.

I enter the plane and say “Bonjour, Madame”, “Bonjour, Monsieur” to the crew as I make my way to my seat, on the same volume level that I use in other languages, because, you know, je parle un petit peu français. I am rewarded with a “Bonjour, Madame” or sometimes still with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.” I like being called Mademoiselle. I don’t find it derogatory and it reminds me of when I started flying to France as a student, after first moving to Germany. The German Fräulein has said farewell and disappeared in to the mist of times past, but Mademoiselle isn’t quite ready to leave just yet.

Step two of my exciting journey en français is putting to the test our extensive lesson on ordering in a restaurant. Are you ready for it? Here goes. “Je voudrais un chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît.” The stewardess doesn’t politely ask me to repeat my request (parfait!) and gracefully hands me my little cup of hot chocolate, following the action with a sentence I can’t repeat, but I know she’s saying I should stir the liquid. She also asks, and I’m pretty sure I am typing this correctly (confidence is everything), “Vous desirez de l’eau avec votre chocolat chaud?” And because I’m an experienced traveler en France and prepared to invest my German powers of concentration in this drink before me, I answer elegantly, “Non, merci.”

I gratefully sip my hot chocolate, because I need to fortify myself for what comes next after these linguistic achievements. Step three of my interactions en français will be to put money on my Navigo pass so I can take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. I spend the remainder of the flight painstakingly composing various versions of what I want to say. “Bonjour, j’ai mon Navigo…non, bonjour, j’ai un Navigo…is it un or une Navigo? Wait, they don’t need to know it’s my Navigo, too much information, and I have it in my hand anyway, it’s not like I just picked it up off the floor, my picture is on it. OK, how about, bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours? Or is it de cinq jours? Or just cinq jours? Bonjour (smoothly slide Navigo towards SNCF employee behind the glass), je suis ici pour (maybe I can ask them, with that little laugh as if we’re sharing an inside joke, if pour is correct, haha, hmmm, oui, le français) cinq jours et je voudrais…what do I use for “to” or “until” when I’m talking about a stop? We recently had a few lessons where we repeated how to use en, au and aux, depending on whether you were talking about a country, city or region, and what gender they were. But we didn’t cover stops of the Parisian metro!

But my feverish race of thoughts is stopped quickly after I enter the SNCF ticket office in the airport. I only manage to get out “Bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours”, but something about it must have been convincing, because the lady at the counter released what sounded to my ears like a torrent of rapid French and the only word I understood was “dimanche”. I apologized in English and she reeled off the information I needed in the same language, but she clearly didn’t wish to pursue any longer interactions, so all my carefully constructed sentence parts will have to be saved for next time.

I redeemed myself the next morning by loudly and decisively telling a man blocking my path in the metro “Excusez-moi!”, only to see that he was a ticket controller.

 

Discover Northern Germany: Husum

Husum is a beautiful historic town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein worth checking out if you want to discover Northern Germany. Lovely walks along streets lined with old brick houses typical of the area and everything being reachable on foot make for easy planning while you’re there.

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Cold winds blow in January from the North Sea nearby, brilliant sunshine might be expected and there are lots of places to stop by for a cup of tea – popular beverage here. The traditional Brauhaus Husum in the Neustadt street is a recommended stop if you’re interested in the local beer culture, and there’s even a proudly sold local brand of mineral water, Unser Gutes Husumer.

The local castle is a good place to start if you want to get a town history fix and the park around it fills with crocuses in the springtime. Even now in this cold winter weather tiny ones are sprouting up from the earth. The Schlosscafe, located right in the castle courtyard, serves tasty (and cheap) dishes, as well as delicious, generously sliced cake. It’s a good way to finish the visit to the castle (which follows a route noble guests were expected to take in the olden days – you might get a guide from the stern lady at the entrance and don’t even think of saying no). I didn’t know Czar Peter the Great visited Husum during the Great Northern War (dim memories of history lessons in school), or that the town used to belong to Denmark. Many signs in the castle and other places are written both in German and Danish.

Husum is also the birthplace of Theodor Storm, an important influencer of the country’s 19th century literary scene and connected to the development of realism in German literature. After walking through all the rooms of his house, which has stayed largely unchanged since his death, through two world wars and despite other owners, it’s amusing to find out that Storm collected and penned ghost stories (Spukgeschichten), which had been unpublished for a long time before being discovered. The receptionist tells me about children huddling around a fireplace in kitchens during dark evenings, while that cold wind raged outside in streets that weren’t yet lit the same as nowadays. They would tell each other these stories, both drawing from what they had heard elsewhere and making things up as they went along. This certainly creates quite an image in my head!

Just like in Hamburg, people say Moin in Husum. Another gem in Northern Germany.

Lüneburg Day 2

It does all start with breakfast. A breakfast makes or breaks a hotel stay for me, and as long as I made the effort to save for this trip, I’d like my favourite meal of the day to justify it. And did it ever!

I came downstairs to see a small, but well-stocked breakfast space – always a winning point for me, with sensible food placement and convenient containers. Various hams, cheese, fruit, bread, scrambled eggs, fried mushrooms, bowls filled with vegetable salads, smoked salmon and other fish, home-made jam and two types of peanut butter to choose from – I was in breakfast paradise. The walls of the restaurant are also decorated with older illustrations of Lüneburg, always a nice touch when you see something local. I was so full that I had to pass on sampling any local dishes at lunchtime. Waste not.

I started my sightseeing with a visit to the local Water Tower, which you can see from a lot of points in the town. It’s open every day and a non-discounted ticket is still very cheap, 4,50 euros. A great tip if you are undecided about visiting museums during a shorter trip. A lift takes you up to the 6th floor, where you climp a few more flights of stairs on your way to the observation platform with its stunning view of the well-preserved red-tiled roofs and old brick houses of Lüneburg. You might be asked not to visit the second floor, where weddings sometimes take place. Going back down, I’d recommend checking out the exhibitions on site, such as the many facts on water supply history, in Lüneburg and beyond (did you know that boiling water for hygienic reasons became common ONLY in the second half of the 19th century?), and also the Japanese artefacts on display, honoring the partnership between Lüneburg and Naruto.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around Lüneburg’s pretty streets, stepping in to shops and enjoying the easy distances between everything. If this place is already so picturesque, seeing it in other seasons will definitely be exciting too.

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Exploring Lüneburg: Day 1

Lüneburg is a gem of a town in Northern Germany and perfect for a weekend getaway. It’s small, easily accessible, quaint, extremely historical and simply pretty.

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Day 1 was arrival and settling in day, so there are no detailed notes on sights and snacks as of yet, but there will be. I caught the quicker train among the regular ones leaving from Hamburg every hour, and before I knew it I was exiting Lüneburg station, small but busy, and almost automatically walking towards the town center. Memories from day trips in previous years come back and I’m excited to spend more time here. You can’t get lost in Lüneburg, which is comforting to remember even when I do my trademark loop while looking for my hotel.

Zum Roten Tore is comfortable and cosy. The immediate change of pace from big city to small town is made more obvious by the fact that I get a traditional room key with a heavy key ring and that when you people-watch you get an occasional relaxed hello.  I came prepared from Hamburg, which means I took an umbrella with me, but I’m touched to discover a large white one in my room.

It’s already early evening, so after a snack I walk around, familiarizing myself with the streets and landmarks I’d like to explore later. It’s January and not raining, one cool shop follows the other and I can’t get enough of the gingerbreadness Lüneburg first impressed me with all those years ago. Not a tall building in sight and people are actually walking slower. The weekend is upon us, shoppers take leisurely advantage of winter sale season and increasing numbers of laughing teenagers gather in groups on Am Sande, the main square. It looks like various pub crawls are about to start and I move away to walk along the surrounding streets made up of brick houses with sometimes slanted windows and walls.

One of Germany’s most famous soap operas, Rote Rosen, is filmed here, and the broshure I just read tells me I might run in to some of the actors if I’m lucky. I just checked out some clips on YouTube to polish up and find myself being drawn in…